As fans and admirers come to grips with the unexpected death of Prince, who passed away today at 57, it’s clear that the musician’s influence reaches far beyond a single genre. Few artists were more celebrated, more revered and more enigmatic in the mid-Eighties, when Prince was at his commercial peak, but few were also as prone to experimentation, even when the idea – or the results – may have asked more questions than were ultimately answered. Such is the case with a 1987 recording project from Memphis-born country hitmaker Deborah Allen, whose album Telepathy featured a title track written, produced and played on by Prince (using one of his many aliases, “Joey Coco”).
Although the encounters with Prince were relatively few, Allen remembers him today as a very spiritual man without whom she would have missed out on some magical, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. “When I heard the news I was just completely shocked. I got weak all over and sad all at once,” she tells Rolling Stone Country. “I’m very honored to have been in his life and to get to feel his big, beautiful heart and his sharing spirit.”
Allen, who was signed to Nashville’s RCA Records, had scored a few minor hits but really connected with a song she co-wrote (with Rafe Van Hoy and Rory Bourke) called “Baby I Lied.” A Top Five country tune, the single also reached the Top Thirty on the pop chart. A few years later, with her label shifting Allen to their pop division, she was in L.A. working at Sunset Sound studios — and while she was aware Prince was also recording at the same facility, out of respect for his privacy and because she was focused on her own project, she didn’t go snooping around for the enigmatic performer. One day, however, when nature called, that’s just who she ran into while crossing the studio courtyard. She recalled her first meeting with him in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone contributor Stephen L. Betts.
“He had a bathroom in his part, but our studio you walked across the courtyard and went into the main area,” Allen said. “I came out of the bathroom and saw this basketball going by. I thought it was my friend that was with me. I picked it up and turned around and I’m laughing, going, ‘Here. . . Oh, hey.’ It was Prince.”
The second time they encountered each other came after an executive changeover at the record label. She had already gone through one shakeup and was “running with it, trying to live up to the challenge.” On the day several label people were listening to what would be the Telepathy album, Allen was dressed in a black mini-skirt with a yellow jacket splattered with paint.
“My hair was all jacked out and I had some cool earrings on,” she recalls. “I decided I’d go get some coffee while they were listening to my album. So, I had a couple of coffees in my hand and there’s Prince playing basketball in his blue silk bell-bottoms, blue silk shirt and platform shoes. I’m standing there beside him, watching him shoot baskets and I say, ‘Well, that was a good one.’ Then I go, ‘I like your outfit.’ He says, ‘Likewise.’ That’s all we said to each other. We acknowledged each other then we went on.
“Those new people from New York said, ‘We like your album but if you can come up with a couple more cuts, we need a couple we can really run with,'” Allen continues. “I come back to Nashville and I’m sitting in my kitchen and I just say a prayer: ‘God, please tell me what to do.’ All of a sudden it was like this light bulb went off in my head that said, ‘You met Prince. He’s the greatest pop artist right now.’ So, I wrote him this letter: ‘Dear Prince, You may not remember me, but I’m Deborah Allen and we met by the basketball court. The new RCA executives like my album but they want me to do a couple more cuts. I was wondering if you’d be interested in writing, co-writing, and/or producing something on me. That would be merely wonderful.’
“About a week later, Coke Johnson, who was his engineer, told me, ‘He’s written back to you, so get ready for it.’ I still have the little envelope he wrote. It says ‘D. Allen’ and he took pens and colored it up and everything. He just said, ‘I listened to it and I loved it.’ So, he sent me the tracks. We recorded my vocal here [in Nashville], sent it back to him and he overdubbed a saxophone part.”
Not long after, while Allen was in L.A. doing press, she visited Prince, who played “Telepathy” for everybody in the studio. He then invited the singer to attend a birthday party for his then-percussionist Shelia E.
“That was a fairytale unto itself,” Allen says. “Everybody was there. I was dressed really exotic that night. We drive up and I get out of my limo, Prince gets out of his Rolls Royce. I knew his driver, so I said, ‘Hey, Sam.’ I didn’t want to go in by myself so I asked my driver, Bernard, to accompany me. Prince walks up to me and says, ‘Come. You go with us.’ They let Prince and a couple of people through but they didn’t let me through. Then it was like slow motion. I saw Prince gliding up these long stairs going up to Club Vertigo. He’s got these two girls on his arms and he looks back and sees I’m hung up. He whispers to someone and in two seconds I was in.”
Prince, standing at the edge of the bar, is dressed in typically funky pink bell bottoms striped with gold, his shoes and shirt matching the rest of his outfit, but it was Allen’s attire that left an impression on him.
“I walked over to him and he said, ‘Deborah, you should have your picture taken in this outfit.’ I said, ‘Thank you. You look beautiful tonight, too.’ Then I said, ‘I noticed in the studio you have everything under the sun. I wanted to get you a memento of us. I didn’t know what to get but today I was on Picot Blvd., at an antique store and I saw something that reminded me of you. You don’t have to wear it. You can just put it in a dish by your bed if you want to. But I wanted you to have it.'”
With that, Allen handed the singer a small crucifix, the back of which was engraved with the simple message: “Prince: Telepathy 4ever, Deborah.”
“He takes the cross in his hand,” she recalls. “His eyes, with those beautiful eyelashes and that beautiful face, are dancing all around it, taking it all in. He says [incredulously], ‘Put in it a dish by the bed?’ Then he leaned over and showed it to his daddy.”
Club Vertigo’s distinctive harlequin-themed décor was done in turquoise, black and white, and Allen was seated in a clam-shelled shaped booth, where Prince made sure she was noticed.
“I’m sitting there just thinking, ‘I am in heaven. This is a night to remember.’ He introduced me to people saying, ‘This is Deborah Allen. I just produced a smash on her. It’s the best thing I’ve done since ‘Kiss.'”
The already memorable evening was capped off by a special dance the two shared together.
“He asked me if I would like to dance,” Allen remembers, adding that she was more nervous about being the only couple on the dance floor, while everyone else was standing around it watching them. “There was this great big mirror ball slowly going around. When Prince took my hand and walked me to the dance floor, I’m thinking, ‘Please don’t let him cut a rug. Please don’t let him cut a rug.’ But he was just kind of easing into the music, so I did, too. I was glad because I had to balance my hat on my head. It was like one of those West Point dances where nobody dances until the couple of honor dances. So, nobody danced until Prince and I danced together. I was just soaking it all in like a sponge. He was so sweet to me at that party.”
Allen, who noted that she will be working on a project that would have taken her to Prince’s longtime home, Minneapolis, had hoped to possibly reconnect with him at some point. Instead, her still-vivid memories will have to suffice.
“I wish I could have just one more time to tell him how much I appreciate him, how much I love him, how wonderful he is and what a gift he was to my life.”